Ever since we started to blog the winemaker profiles, I've been postponing writing about our photoshoot with Justin Smith of Saxum. Don't ask me why, because I really don't know.
In Anomalisa, the director mentions the Fregoli delusion, which is a disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person who changes appearance or is in disguise.
Now that the delusion is explained, I should clarify that being raised in Argentina and having spent big part of my adult life in Europe, I have never visited a tasting room until I came to the United States. Most of my special tastings at wineries were in old cellars covered by spider webs, dust and conducted by either the winemaker or a family member of the winemaker.
Every time I visit a tasting room in the US, this idea of the Fregoli delusion haunts me. I feel a keen disconnection with the person pouring my wine. By describing what the wine is and how it tastes, my whole experience with that wine is ruined.
When you get to taste with the winemaker, she/he usually describes the wine with a story or an experience the winemaker was going through while making that wine.
This makes the experience of tasting an open-ended conversation that results in me relating to that wine at a personal level.
Now, the reason why I have to talk about all these things is because I want the reader to fully understand my experience with Justin Smith - who has no tasting room - and also the reason why I wanted to make this book about the winemakers and not their wines or wineries. In my opinion, the way we relate to the wine - the experience - is a lot more powerful when we know the winemaker and it is the artist that is talking about himself and his art.
Once you enter Justin Smith's caves, you lose touch with the external world and it seems you are entering some kind of fantasy. It's the music, the decoration, the staff, and, of course, him.
Even though the caves are completely new, the generational gap between my experience in Europe and at Saxum goes completely un-noticed.
As I was setting some lights in the caves, I saw Justin flying around me zigzagging in between barrels and tanks. That's how he navigates his caves. I knew it was going to be fun.
Saxum has no tasting room, they are mostly direct sales. There's a tiny board balanced on two barrels in the cave in front of a limestone wall - whale fossils found while building the cave are lying in front of the limestone as decoration - where he pours his wines.
Having scored 100 points and with a waiting list of more than 4 years, he talks about his wines in an unsnobbish and unpresuming way. Smiling and petting his dogs, he tells stories, describes his farming techniques which are mostly focused on bringing the best possible fruit into the winery: the magic happens outside, in the vineyard.
It was an amazing and relaxed experience to take pictures of Smith in his caves. I also got to come face-to-face with the fact that there's wine out there for everyone. Saxum is definetely mine.
Here'sJustin Smith's profile, excerpted from "The Winemakers of Paso Robles" book, written by Paul Hodgins.
2810 Willow Creek Road
Paso Robles, CA 93446
No winery captures the ephemeral magic of Paso Robles better than Saxum. It was founded by the son of a weekend winemaker who’d made his living as a veterinarian. The vineyards were carved slowly and painstakingly out of rocky and unpromising-looking hills. There were years of trial and error.
And then, suddenly, unimaginable success.
Saxum’s 2007 James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles Rhône blend was awarded Wine Spectator’s 2010 Wine of the Year – No. 1 in the world. Wine tastemaker Robert Parker was also impressed, awarding it 100 points. “Utter perfection, and one of the most profound Rhône Ranger wines I have ever tasted,” he announced.
“We were fortunate to buy in the right place,” Saxum owner-winemaker Justin Smith says. But clearly, something more than luck is at work in the hilly vineyards surrounding Smith’s home a few miles west of Paso Robles. His ostensible good fortune is the result of two generations of hard work, intelligent experimentation and growing insight.
Smith’s father, James, a San Diego county veterinarian, bought the James Berry property when Justin was 10. Pebble, as Justin’s dad is known, and Justin’s mom Terry, started creating a vineyard right away, doing even the most physically taxing work themselves. Meanwhile, Justin spent many happy hours zipping around the property on his bicycle.
“My parents originally planted Burgundian varieties,” Smith recalls. “They were going off what had worked over at HMR.” (Hoffman Mountain Ranch was founded by Dr. Stanley Hoffman, a pioneer of Paso’s modern wine industry, who planted his first vines in the early 1960s.) “They put in mainly chardonnay here. It did well, but the market for Paso chardonnay was never there.”
Pebble ended up working for Fetzer Vineyards, selling most of his annual yield to them, and became the winery’s rep for the Central Coast. But watching their grapes disappear into someone else’s wine was a bit disheartening, Smith said. In the late 1980s, the family made a crucial decision to change direction when local winemaker John Alban returned from France with a radical suggestion.
“He just got back after spending some time in the Rhône, and he was very excited about this crazy idea that we could grow those grapes here,” Smith recalled. “Rhônes were not on my dad’s radar before that. John convinced him that this might be a great spot. So we put in a couple of test blocks of mourvèdre and viognier.”
Soon others were following suit, and they enlisted the Smiths to help. Kenneth Volk, who found early success as the owner/winemaker of Wild Horse, suggested they plant some syrah, the dominant varietal of the northern Rhône. Pebble planted a 3.5-acre block of syrah for Volk in 1990; it did very well.
In 1995, the Smiths purchased an adjacent 20 acres, and by this time the die was cast: They planted nothing but Rhône grapes on the new property. “There was no turning back from that point,” Smith said.
Justin, bitten by the wine bug, attended Cal Poly in nearby San Luis Obispo. After graduating, he came back to manage the family vineyard. As payment, his father presented Justin with one block of syrah. Together with his college housemate, Matt Trevisan, Justin used the fruit to start the Linne Calodo winery; the pair’s first vintage was 300 cases.
After a few years they parted ways, and Smith formed his own winery, Saxum, on the family land. He runs the winery, although Pebble and Terry still lives on the property and farm a section of the vineyard for their own pleasure. Justin talks proudly about a long-planned improvement: a large wine cave.
“We’ve been working on this cave for about six years now. It’s expensive, but it makes so much sense in this warm climate. It also pencils out in the end when you realize that you’re spending thousands every month to chill wine bottles in an 80-degree room.”
Smith has left the back wall of the wine cave unfinished, revealing the composition of the rock. It’s brilliant white and filled with fossils – a prime example of calcareous formation, a geological characteristic that the area west of Paso Robles shares with France’s Rhône region.
“We’ll do all of our fermentation in here,” Smith said, gesturing around the 13,000-square-foot facility. “Clearly, with our present capacity we won’t have to stack very high. We could double capacity pretty easily, but I’d rather have the room. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Smith has been slowly expanding his output, but emphasized that the more important job is maintaining quality and control – and enjoying himself in the process. “All of our vineyards are within a mile of my house. It’s a magic spot here. All of our production is sold through our mailing list.”
With his cult status assured – the wait to get into Saxum’s wine club is rumored to be as long as five years – and his output capped by choice, Smith enjoys the luxury of being able to increase quality in almost any conceivable way. He’s also farming wisely, learning how to be ever stingier with water and using crop cover between the rows.
But like many successful Paso winemakers, Smith prefers to stay small. “For us, the limit might be only 1,200 to 1,500 more cases than we’re making now. We don’t know exactly. It’s all about what we can comfortably do by selling direct.” He shrugged and smiled broadly. “That’s as big as we’ll ever need to be.”
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